The front-page headline in Wednesday’s New York Daily News offered the most succinct verdict on Donald Trump’s latest publicity stunt: “CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ.”
It is a safe bet that Trump will never be president. In fact, he may drop out (as weirdly as he dropped in) before he must make a detailed financial disclosure to the FEC or face possible humiliation in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
But (as much as it pains me to write these words) Trump may be performing a public service with his comb-over egomania. His candidacy serves as a pointed reminder of the fragility of our political system—especially the way that we nominate presidential candidates.
Until the advent of the modern primary system in 1972, party leaders, in effect, vetted the White House candidates and guaranteed that no one grotesquely unqualified (even Warren Harding looked like a president) would be nominated. That smoked-filled room approach broke down after GOP conservative insurgents nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Democratic Party ripped itself apart in 1968 over Vietnam.
It took a little time for party leaders to get the hang of the new system (the Democrats had 27 binding primaries by 1976), which helps explain the nominations of antiwar crusader George McGovern and outsider Jimmy Carter. But as the four authors of the 2008 political science classic The Party Decides point out, “Starting with the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980, insider candidates have won every contest through 2000 and … possibly 2004 as well.”
In truth, the authors (Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller) shortchange the establishment credentials of John Kerry in 2004. And even amid the Hillary Clinton coronation in 2008, Barack Obama had the support of influential Democrats like Ted Kennedy and top party fund-raisers.
What this history suggests is that from 1980 through 2012 party elites guaranteed the nomination of only mainstream candidates. Insurgents like Gary Hart (1984), Howard Dean (2004) plus Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (2012) were beaten back. And politically threatening figures from Jesse Jackson (1988) to Pat Buchanan (1996) never were allowed to build on momentary triumphs.
All this might produce a comforting sense that a mountebank like Trump or a pizza mogul like Herman Cain (who was leading the national polls in October 2011) could never be nominated for president. Like the cavalry in an old-time Western, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties will always ride to the rescue if voters are temporarily beguiled with someone lacking the experience, seriousness and temperament to be president.
Don’t be too confident.
Traditionally, the easiest way for political parties to head off unsuitable candidates was to cut off their access to major donors. That strategy began breaking down with the rise of Internet fundraising (see Dean, Howard). But now it has totally collapsed in the age of Super PACs when all it takes is a billionaire and a dream. As Nate Cohn recently put it in the New York Times, “There’s no question that the new combination of unlimited super PAC contributions and online fund-raising has eroded the control of party elites.”
Trump, of course, is a self-funder who would have been immune to financial pressure in any age. But Super PACs also discourage the party from rallying around a single candidate as the establishment choice. With candidates sticking around past their pull date (see Gingrich and Santorum), primary races will become longer despite the party’s desire to wrap things up.
There is also the Law of Unintended Consequences. In an effort to shorten the primary fight, the Republicans now allow any state that votes after March 14 to hold a winner-take-all primary. While few states have yet taken the bait, this dubious reform would, in theory, allow a demagogue to sweep all the delegates in major primaries with, say, only 30 percent of the vote.
The economic crisis threatening the news media also empowers joke candidates like Trump. In the 1970s, the three nightly network newscasts might have given a circus candidate initial attention, but would have soon grown bored with the affront to serious politics.
But now in a click-happy era, it was a profile in journalistic courage when the New York Times Wednesday refused to put the Trump trumpery on Page One. Every Trump over-hyped campaign event and bombastic press conference will be covered like the royal baby. Not only will such saturation attention add an unearned legitimacy to Trump the Statesman, but it will also deprive long-shot candidates boasting serious pedigrees (Lindsey Graham, John Kasich) with a chance to get known to the voters.
Trump, by the way, is likely to bump a senator or governor from the first GOP debate because of the cockamamie decision by Fox News to limit it to 10 candidates based on national poll numbers. Imagine the contortions that Fox will have to go through to explain why Trump deserves to participate in the Cleveland debate on August 6, but Kasich, the two-term Ohio governor, should be barred.
The glib parallel to Trump is the mercurial Ross Perot who won 19 percent of the vote running as an independent against imperiled incumbent President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But as a Time reporter who interviewed Perot for nearly three hours in his North Dallas office tower when he was leading in the national polls in mid-1992, I can testify that the Texas billionaire was Pericles compared to Trump. Yes, Perot was thin-skinned and paranoid about the Bush family, but he was also serious about trade and the national debt in a way that contributed to the policy debates of the 1990s.
So far, there is no evidence that Trump has a constituency beyond the tabloid press that views him as the gift that keeps on giving. As the statistical and polling website FiveThirtyEight pointed out, “A whopping 57 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Trump.” Small wonder, as the Hollywood Reporter discovered, Trump tried to pay out-of-work actors $50 to portray cheering fans at his kickoff rally. With marvelous understatement, the casting call stated, “We understand that this is not a traditional 'background job,' but we believe acting comes in all forms and this is inclusive of that school of thought.”
Threats to democracy also come in all forms. And while Trump is pursuing nothing more serious than brand promotion in a celebrity culture, it is a reminder that the next time a clown-car candidate may have more malign goals. If Trump represents farce, the next incarnation of a self-created candidate could lead to tragedy.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.